The off-the-cuff remark, the joke in poor taste, the hasty, thoughtless response. We all have them tucked away in our guilty conscience.
But we have no idea how many other faux pas, unrecalled and seemingly unimportant we have committed, or of their possibly long-lasting effect on the poor recipient.
How refreshing it can be when the flipside happens, usually when you least expect it
A friend was recently approached my someone he thought was a stranger who thanked profusely for the help he had given, more than twenty years earlier, when he quizzed him about the subject of his university thesis.
“It’s great to see you again. You were such a motivator to me.”
It turned out that for this man David (not his real name), whatever my friend told him – the topic was CSR corporate social responsibility – had been a critical actor when he was awarded a top grade.
So much water had rushed past my friend’s personal bridge since they first met that he had to confess he had no memory either of David or of their discussion.
But what later became clear was that whatever my friend had told him had not only helped his thesis but had in some small way inspired him to make a career in what is now referred to as Environmental Sustainability in Business (ESB). He has since made quite a name for himself as an ESB advisor to the construction industry.
Which set my pal how wondering many other forgotten Davids are out there for whom something he said provided the match that lit their career touchpaper.
Par contre, as the French say, on the other hand, how many men and women down the years, has something stupid or inadvertent any of us said triggered a loss of self-confidence, a missed golden opportunity?
None of us will ever know and we can not erase the past. What’s done is done. Until we meet another David.
But we can do something about it, as leaders. In fact, we must. It is our inescapable duty, I would suggest.
Once we recognise what a huge force for good a quiet word here or there or a small gesture, can turn out to be, something well-meant but never intended to be transformative.
And what a destructive power we also hold, as leaders, what potential to wreck, or at best delay, the life-chances of another human being.
Interestingly, what kids are being taught in school is so important and just as relevant later in life.
The poster shown below is, I understand, regularly used in schools’ personal development sessions. Does it seem a little naïve, simplistic? Yes?
But we need to think again because it actually contains fundamental truths that, in the hurly-burly of a leader’s life, are so easily overlooked. I have certainly overlooked each one on occasion. Come on, admit it, so have you.
Let’s spend just a moment on each one.
T = Is it True? The Bullshit Test
Are we being entirely open with our people? Are we telling them half-truths? If we are, we are behaving like a typical politician. And we all know what we think of them, right?
Does what you are thinking of saying pass one of my favourite tests? The Bullshit Test. Half a lifetime working with brilliant copywriters taught me this one. If what you say fails the Bullshit Test in the mind of the receiver, you can be sure you will be found out and, from that moment on, you are in trouble. Trust has been wounded.
H = Is it Helpful?
Do the words you use, in that context, or even your tone of voice, leave the recipient feeling trusted, chuffed, embarrassed, hurt, frightened they may lose their job or which is what you intended, grateful for a valuable lesson learned.
As every copywriter knows, it’s not what we say, it is our audience’s response that matters, that and that alone, no matter how elegant the words we use to address them.
Which brings us neatly onto –
I = Is it Inspiring?
The art of leadership and inspiration are intricately entwined. The inspiring goal; the inspiring speech; a demonstration that, in your view everyone, even those colleagues at the foot of the ladder, through their diligent, conscientious work, are making a valuable contribution to the success of the enterprise.
Leaving a reprimanded colleague feeling that he or she is still trusted and valued is never easy. They were already feeling pretty bad about themselves before you ticked them off, so there is absolutely no need to rub it in.
If they feel you have turned against them, you risk losing them over one silly but hardly life-threatening mistake. Which is not fair on them or on you.
N = Is it Necessary?
What are you adding to the discussion? This is where so many friends, colleagues, and family members fail, time and time again. If anyone tells you they have never regretted saying something, never regretted sending a particular email, wished they had kept quiet, don’t believe them.
No matter how strongly we may feel about a particular issue at the time, pause, think how others could react, and ask whether the world would be a happier place if we just said nothing.
Many recommend giving it the Overnight Test – a good night’s sleep can be the perfect antidote to an overactive mind. Somehow things look far more proportionate in the morning.
K = Is it Kind?
The foundations of any strong relationship are multi-layered. Yet words like kindness, in some business circles, are seen as inappropriate. Is there a place in this competitive world for kindness? Do only the strong, the tough, survive? Do the people who work for me expect me to be kind?
And yet, when a slightly different word is used like considerate, for example, would that not be acceptable in a leader? The answer of course, is Yes.
As far as we know, the human brain is still the most complex, unpredictable organ on the planet. And, while ninety-plus percent of human behaviour has remained unchanged for centuries, the other percent are forever learning new skills, following new trends, creating and rebelling against new ideas. Which is what makes leadership learning so fascinating.
The chances of a leader getting everything right are zero. But with a dash of patience, forethought, and consideration, we can not only move forward faster, but we can at least cut the negative effect of those unintended consequences to an acceptable minimum.
Mm. Did I say that right?